Thursday, June 30, 2016

AI builds e-learning at 10% of cost, in minutes not months, with higher retention and recall

Paying 20k an hour for e-learning content, over many months, that is laden with noisy pages of text/graphics, punctuated by low retention multiple-choice questions? AI can help you to build content at 10% of the cost, in minutes not months, with higher retention and recall.
Problem
The problem with the traditional, online learning, bespoke content paradigm is the tools. They push vendors and buyers into producing content that has ten major flaws:
1. Expensive to produce
2. Too long to produce
3. Difficulties with SMEs
4. Media (but not mind) rich
5. Weak Multiple-Choice
6. Low effort learning
7. Pavlovian gamification
8. Impersonal learning
9. Low retention and recall
10. No practice
1. Expensive to produce
I ran a large, bespoke, content company. It was very successful but that was back in the day and used the tools of the day. Yet the content produced today costs and looks much as it was 30 years ago, despite the fact that computers are faster, better, cheaper and online. Why does it still cost 20k an hour to produce e-learning content? Because we’re still in the old paradigm of traditional authoring tools and a mindset besotted with appearance, not learning. Imagine reducing that cost by 90% through a radically different approach, using AI and automation. You can.
2. Takes too long to produce
E-learning projects can take three to six months or longer, with lots of process and angst. It’s a highly iterative process, and takes a huge amount of management, definition, design, development and delivery time to produce anything. Imagine doing all of this in minutes, not months. You can.
3. Difficulties with SMEs
By far the most difficult step in the production of online learning is getting the knowledge and expertise from the mind of the subject matter expert (SME) across and into the course. It’s a tricky process and often full of angst and recrimination. Imagine taking SME content – any document, PowerPoint or video - and turning it automatically into online learning. You can.
4. Media (but not mind) rich
As computers have allowed us to deliver media rich experiences, we have, often blindly, ignored the research by Mayer, Clark and many others, showing that media-rich is not always mind-rich. This has resulted in an often garish concoction of movement, graphics, cartoons and animation, that inhibits, rather than enhances learning. There’s maybe not enough ‘edu’ and too much ‘tainment’ in ‘edu-tainment’. We need to pay attention to the research, reduce cognitive overload and focus on the learning. Less is more.
5. Weak Multiple Choice Questions
Long the staple of online learning, yet when in real life does anyone choose an option from a list, as if the mind was a simplistic ATM, choosing from menus? Besotted with MCQs, we have produced low-effort, low-retention and low-recall learning. It doesn’t have to be this way. Use more effortful, open response learning. The research shows it is superior.
6. Low effort learning
The illusion of mastery is what much online learning produces, the feeling that you’ve learnt things through light-touch exposure and occasional selections from lists. In truth, real learning is learning by doing, real effort, not page turning and exposure to fancy media. Recent reseach turns traditional onine learning on its head. Make the learner make the effort – that’s what results in high retention and recall. Read to remember.
7. Trivial Pavlovian gamification
Does gamification play Pavlov with learners? It so often does, collecting coins, trivial games that just put more cognitive effort into the mix. Or, you can focus on the sort of gamification that Demis Hassabis uses in AI learning – repeated deliberate practice. Don’t make it too easy to sail through, allow learners to fail, make them work, make them do things until they get 100% competence…. That’s true gamification.
8. Impersonal
Good online learning is always a balance between directed and open-learning. There needs to be structure, often quite directed, but there also has to be the opportunity for support, expansion and curiosity. Allow the learner to explore by providing automatically generated links out to extra content. Make your course porous. This is possible with AI.
9. Low retention and recall
Over the last ten years, evidence has emerged (summarized in Make It Stick) that effortful learning matters, that open response is superior to multiple choice and that deliberate practice matters. We have the ability to use AI to embody and deliver practice based on contemporary learning theory.
10. No practice
The once only, sheep-dip experience was the target of online learning, with its anytime, anywhere offer. Yet online learning simply replaced one type of sheep-dip (offline) with another (online). The fact that they rarely delivered opportunities for reinforcement and practice, was the same in both camps. AI, the algorithmic delivery of simple and effective online learning, through effortful and deliberate practice, can change this.
Conclusion
We can now, for certain types of leaning, produce content at 10% of the cost, in minutes not months, with higher retention and recall. We can avoid the trap of whizz-bang graphics, weak MCQs and Pavlovian ‘collect the coins’ gamification. The new approach, using AI, creates e-learning which is effortful and allows the learner to expand on their learning with access to external resources and further opportunities for practice. It’s called WildFire.

WildFire takes any document, PowerPoint or video and turns it into online learning, within minutes, using AI. More than this, it uses effortful open-response learning to increase retention and recall. Beyond this it automatically curates links to content beyond the course and, in real time, can create online learning from this content. It is unique. For more information see the WildFire website.

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

What does Brexit mean for EdTech?

I know of four successful EdTech entrepreneurs who voted for Brexit. Surprised? Maybe not! I was one of them. Steve Rayson, another, made the point that people in this position like to do detailed analysis, weigh up the risks and make their choice. We were not swayed by Boris and co, and tended to see this as a long-term play, not a proxy general Election. Steve's point was that we are not scared of risk. We rehearsed the arguments openly, online, over several months and made up our minds. For all of us, I suspect, it was marginal. There was also some reflection around what it means for our sector.
The Brexit vote has produced lots of angst around business. Die-hard anti-capitalists have suddenly found a new interest in the stock market and currency trading. They worry about tariffs and trade deals. But for those of us who have been travelling and trading abroad for many years, it’s not such a great problem.
1. Addressable markets
EdTech companies tend to look towards the English speaking market – the US, Australia etc, for the obvious reason that we speak the same language. The EU market is linguistically diverse, compared to the largest, single EdTech market in the world, the US. This is why investment money tends to look for UK companies with a US angle. Content, technology and services are always easier to deliver in one language. Indeed, if one were to look for new, hgh growth markets, it’s not Europe but the US, Middle and Far East that you would turn. So in terms of growth, it’s business as usual.
2. M&A
Most of the M&A business is not investments from Europe or in European entities but in the US, Australia and elsewhere. Similarly, a lot of investment is to and from the US. This has been true for decades and is unlikely to be much affected by Brexit. Every single deal I've been involved in over the last ten years has had nothing to do with Europe.
3. Services
There are no tariffs on services, so it will not make much difference. At present, few in EdTech experience any real differences between selling to EU and other countries. If anything, Ireland, which is in the EU, is the most difficult, as they subtract tax at source, which has to be reclaimed, with some difficulty. So no difference here.
4. Education is devolved
Education is a devolved responsibility in Europe. Pan-European attempts at integration and sharing, Bologna and many others, failed, as countries are, in reality, fiercely independent in education, with funding regimes that encourage institutions not to share students and qualifications. Being in or out, therefore, makes little or no difference.
5. Research
Little has emerged in EdTech from EU research funding. Many business people who have been involved in such projects complain about their bureaucratic and stifling nature and lack of impact. As they have had no significant impact, despite vast sums of money being spent, I don’t see this as something to worry about. Indeed, the country saves large sums if wasted research cash, rather than being spent on diffuse, collaborative, CityBreak research projects, get spent on closer working relationships between researchers and our own UK-based EdTech companies. The EdTech sector in the UK has not grown on the back of University research, it has grown through the efforts of investors, entrepreneurs and small businesses.
6. Outsourcing
Few outsource from the UK to EU countries, as Indian or other countries are cheaper, and often have higher level skills. Even if one does outsource to Eastern Europe, things are unlikely to change.
7. Data regulation
Benedict Evans thinks that the EU is moving towards heavyweight regulation around data (and AI) that will stifle technology company growth, leading to inaction by buyers. The UK has pushed back against this but have been outvoted Post-Brexit, the EU may get worse, while the UK remains relatively light in such over-bearing restrictions. Being out may be an advantage.
8. OER
Wikipedia, Duolingo, Khan Academy, MOOCs, and most successful OER projects, are largely international phenomena, not EU specific. Indeed, despite the huge spend in the EU, the most successful examples of OER seem to come from the US. One wonders whether the steady flow of annual grants has simply stifled innovation. I suspect so.
9. Currency
This is a swings and roundabouts issue. A weak pound makes things difficult if you’re buying from abroad but also makes you cheaper and more competitive to those abroad. As our EdTech industry is a net exporter, this is fine.
10. Education
I covered this in another post but some analysis of the effects of Brexit on the education market as a whole, shows no real, significant change. When it comes to the ededucaytion market, the effects are insignificant.
Conclusion

So not much change then. If anything, a few advantages. One clear advantage for me, is that we’ll rely less on the crutches of EU grants and focus on real businesses and projects that effect real change in terms of better efficiency and outcomes in the EdTech sector. We have the largest and most successful EdTech market in Europe, it is more likely to grow as a result of this vote.

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

What does Brexit mean for education?

Education is a devolved issue in the EU, so the impact, in my view, will be negligible. Sure there will be adjustments, but that may, in some cases, be healthy.
1. Schools
Brexiters argued that there will be less pressure on schools, as there will be less EU migration in the future. This was one of the reasons so many voted for Brexit. They have a point as it is hard to see how there will be more pressure on schools because of Brexit. With other countries about to join, the number of children coming to the UK was set to increase year on year. EU teachers working here may be affected but that depends on what rules emerge and it is unlikely that qualified professionals will be much affected. Here’s some good news, Nicky Morgan was a fierce remain campaigner, so her tenure may be short - but who knows who we'll get next.
2. Private schools
Patrick Durham, speaking at the Festival of Education, thought that a number of private schools would have to close. Again, it’s hard to see why this would be the case. I think his case is exaggerated. There are about 5000 EU boarders in such schools and a cheaper pound will make their fees lower, attracting even more foreign boarders. There’s far more other nationalities, and let’s face it, this about making money. I’m not exactly crying in my soup over this one.
3. Language schools
This is big business but there’s little sign that the thirst for learning English will change. It may be a little more difficult to come here but a cheaper pound will more than compensate. For me, this will be business as usual.
4. Student fees
Curiously, EU students in Scotland will no longer be classed as home students, and will have to pay fees, allowing the Universities to recruit without a cap. The same is true in Northern Ireland and Wales, which also offer student support. However, there may be fewer EU students in the future as our Borders tighten. So there's a real downside here as well. English Universities will, of course, simply say that EU students will be charged the same as UK to students to avert a dive in 2017 numbers. Easy fix.
5. Research
Complex one this. As part of the £350 million per week we pay (Gross figure before rebate - I know) to the EU, a large portion comes back to us as University research money. We will, in effect, simply be able to pay this direct. It will be under out control, not the agenda of a diffuse set of 28 states. This is generally true of all sources of EU research funding. It’s was never free money in the first place. It means, in effect, that we will have total control.

This is a potential solution. There are already countries that are not members of the EU, that take part in EU research programmes, collaborate within consortia, even have access to European infrastructure. They have ‘Associated Country’ or ‘Third Country’ status, and include Norway, Israel and Switzerland. Time to consider htis as an option.
6. Research quality
One could argue that, free from the constraints of EU research criteria around collaborative participation, the quality of research will rise. I am in that camp. I have witnessed decades of wasted research in my field, in collaborative projects, with lots of meetings in nice European cities but little or no impact outcomes. EU quango have arisen with little of no real value. So we may see a reduction in wasted research, allowing us to focus on the stuff that matters.
7. Vocational learning
The one area that may suffer is vocational education. However, this may, like research money, simply be a case of money that we paid out coming back to us. Indeed, as we move towards a levy-funded apprenticeship model (April 2017), we will be funding this sensibly from employers. Nick Bowles did say that this may have to be delayed if we vote to leave and we did. However, these threats were ten-a-penny during the campaign. The EU was always skewed towards academic HE and not vocational. This has been catastrophic in southern Europe, with huge levels of youth and graduate unemployment. Vocational was always more of a national than international issue and as we rebalance the academic and vocation mixture, it is arguable that we will become more competitive in the long run.
Conclusion

Turns out to be not so bad after all. Win some, we lose some.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

10 amazing ways Blockchain in assessment could be used in education

Blockchain. What is it? Can it be used in education? I gave a detailed account of this at OEB in Berlin and even got married on Blockchain last year,  but here's some background to that talk.
Early progenitor
In 2001 I designed and implemented a Napster-like system in education, the first P2P file sharing system across a network. Remember that tools you use today benefitted from this movement. Skype, the first P2P VOIP software caused massive disruption in the Massive Disruption of telecommunication Industry. We then used the Gnutella, the first ever, open-source, decentralised file sharing software. We distributed created learning content across a network of Local Governments in England, for non-competing public sector bodies, with no central storage or control. Everyone who created content could share it. This one piece of technology had the potential to save literally hundreds of millions, spent on duplicated training creation and delivery of courses. It didn’t work because, despite being non-competitors, the public sector organisations just didn’t like innovation and stuck to their institutional silos. They stuck to their old ways – NIH (Not Invented Here) with massive duplication of content and no sharing, which is as true today as it was then. In fact, that company went on to become a major commercial player in the content market, Learning Pool, and I'm still involved as an investor and board member.
Blockchain has that same feel, that Napster moment, when a revolutionary piece of technolohy appears, confuses the market, then starts to make steady inroads. In finance MasterCard, BNP Paribas, Visa and J.P. Morgan, invested in blockchain startups and every major finance organization in the world is looking at the technology, with a fearful eye. That’s because it’s a threat to the way they do business and make money. Direct access to cash transactions without government, with fewer institutions and at almost no cost, is quite a threat, Some put the cost savings at as much as $20 billion. It also gives access to the hundreds of millions who do not, at present, have access to banking – the poor, via mobiles. There’s another sector, where it is already having an effect – charities. The Human Rights Foundation, the American Red Cross, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the United Way all accept Bitcoin. Why? It lies outside of the often corrupt government system. It also appeals to their most important donor base – the enlightened, tech-savvy young. The Water Promise received $23,000 in Bitcoin, via Reddit. This could be the new global currency for philanthropy. The music industry has also seen Bitcoin and blockchain enable artists to be paid directly from their fan base.
What is it?
Blockchain could transform governance, the economy, businesses and organisations function.
First, it's already here, not only in Bitcoin but in many other services and commodities - badges, credits or qualifications (Doug Belshaw has looked at this and there's an interesting site badgechain here) as has Serge Ravet of ePIC.
Technically, blockchain is a distributed database, spread across many computers with no central control. Each ‘block’ is transparent but tamper-proof. Every ‘block' has a timestamp for recording transactions and offers indelible proof of all transactions. Rather than relying on third parties, it's a frictionless method for transacting with others.
In normal speak, the basic idea is that you cut out the middleman. There is no central database as everything is distributed, public, synchronised and encrypted. All transations are logged with a time, date and details of transaction - then verified by some very smart maths. Concensus decides and every transaction is public. What it promises is a more efficient, secure and transparent was of handling transactions. This could saves a huge amount of administration, beaurocracy, effort and time. The Internet of things may release its potential.
Who can use it?
Single educational institutions, groups of educational institutions, national educational bodies, international educational bodies… anyone who wants to securely store badges, credits, qualifications and make available to others, educational data that matters, could consider using blockchain technology.
Why does it matter?
As education becomes more diversified, democratised, decentralised and disintermediated, we still need to maintain reputation, trust in certification and proof of learning. The increased focus on relevance and employability may also push us in this direction, as we also need more transparency. Blockchain could provide just such a system. A massive open, online, secure database.
How can it be used?
1. Single institution
One school, Holburton School, in San Fransisco, a software school that offers project based education as an alternative to college courses, has already used blockchain to store and deliver issued certificates. It’s seen as a measure to stop fake certification. The encryption and 2 factor authentification, is used to create, sign-off and place the certificate into the blockchain database. They still give students paper copies but the DCN is a number that allows authentification by employers. I can see their point as it gives employers the idea that this school certainly knows its stuff on IT. MIT are doing similar things, as are the University of Nocosia.
2. Groups of institutions
As educational institutions cluster and co-operate, the need for shared repositories of certification and achievement become real. It may be a group of universities, such a Delft, EPFL, Boston, ANU and UBC, who recently formed a codeshare-like agreement on certification. It may be affiliated organisations that form a global alliance. It may be a global group of schools. Whatever the constellation of institutions or bodies, blockchain gives them a cheap, shared, secure resource.
3. National blockchain database
Education is curiously nationalistic. Even in the EU it is a devolved issue. But within a nation, there is a great need for a shared approach to the range of credentials that are being produced at all levels in the system; schools, colleges, universities, institutes, examination boards, trade associations, employers and so on. There is a real need for something that sits above them all. That solution could be blockchain technology.
4. Global assessment
The current system of certification is not really fit for purpose. A paper system is subject to loss, even fraud. With an increasingly mobile population of students and workers, a centralised database of credentials and achievements makes sense, whether you’re moving to another educational institution, new job, new country, even a refugee who has no copy of their degree. Some sort of secure, online repository would be helpful. You can see, through this need, why assessment is the first thing that comes to mind for blockchain. At present, it’s a mess, waiting to be cleared up by a smart operator. One player is Sony Global Education, who have a platform, using blockchain, to house assessment scores. They want schools and universities to use the service, so that individuals can share such data with third parties, such as employers, LinkedIn etc. Their aim is to offer a global service.
5. Blockchain and badges
So let’s up the stakes, with a wider initiative around Open badges. Open Badges gather evidence for credentials. What better than a tamper-proof system for the storage of such credentials? If a blockchain system can offer a massive way to deal with authentic accreditation, then the problems of openness, scale and cost for badges disappears. See Doug Belshaw’s blog. To see how open badge chains can be converted to blockchain, see Serge Ravet’s blog. MIT have been using Bitcoin blockchain for certification and have open sourced their code.
6. Blockchain and MOOCs
Interestingly, there’s a number of MOOCs on Blockchain, including htis MOOC on Bitcoin and blockchain, by Princeton University, on Coursera. Despite the carping, people keep on making and taking MOOCs. They are genuinely changing the way education is delivered and acting as a real catalyst for change, forcing Universities into a rethink. Yet the certification issue remains a little vague. Each separate MOOC provider issues certificates. With some imagination the real demand for MOOCs could be boosted by secure certification. This could be agreement among the major MOOC providers. It could even open up MOOC certification for actual degrees. MOOCs are about decentralisation and widening access, so there’s every reason to suppose that they will want to decentralise and increase access to their certification.
7. CPD
Always a problem, CPD is difficult to deliver, often fragmented and poorly tracked. Imagine a blockchain system that really does do this within a profession, taking issued CPD data from conference attendance, courses and other forms of learning. Teachers and other professionals could have inputs from trusted providers and be incentivised to do more CPD, if those experiences and learning opportunities were securely stored in a reputable system.
8. Corporate learning
Companies deliver huge amounts of training to their employees but storing achievement is not easy. Current Learning Management System and Talent management System technology, SCORM et al, is a bit old and tired. What is needed is a more open but secure system, for use not only internally but by the employee if they leave.
9. Apprenticeships
Vocational education is now big business as governments around the world recognise the folly of relying too heavily on purely academic institutions to deliver post-school education. In the UK, there will be 3 million apprenticeships, funded through a levy on payroll. It’s a complex business as employers will play a stronger role in their management and delivery. But how do we manage the process and certification? Blockchain is a real possibility, a centralised but neatly distributed national database for the authentification of process and certification.
10. Bodies of knowledge
This one’s more obscure, but imagine something like Wikipedia or Khan Academy, academic journals, OER, even research bodies, issuing proof of learning from their systems. Thanks to John Helmer for the idea of authenticating identity for access to subscription-controlled, academic content from libraries. Current systems (Open Athens, Shibboleth) use centralised ledgers and are seriously dysfunctional. Blockchain could be used here to provide a more robust authentication infrastructure.

Blockchain could be used for a myriad of learning experiences from different sources. This requires a small transaction model and could be where xAPI comes in handy. It stands for ‘eXperience API' and can be used to gather evidence from micro-learning experiences. It is open source, the natural successor to SCORM and stores data in Learning Record Stores. This seems like a natural route to the use of blockchain. There is also the easy use of micropayments in learning. Traditional financial transactions use expensive third parties, who charge fees. Blockchain allows free transactions between parties. This could open up micropayments for the use of educational resources, courses etc. All in all, it frees up the system, makes it more open and flexible. And who would argue that this is not a good thing?
Illich was prescient
Ivan Illich was the educationalist who really did foresee this conceptually, if not technically. By deinstitutionalising education, making it non-compulsory, we can return to its true, authentic value and improve quality. We need to break our addiction to traditional schooling and break its almost religious hold on our consciousness. Fascinatingly, he related this obsession with compulsory schooling to the religious idea of original sin, that we are born imperfect and have to atone. It was not the abolition of schools that concerned him but the recognition that a wider and more diverse landscape was needed. Illich sees alternatives in skills-centres, educational credits and
the ‘possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative and autonomous interaction’. Well before the age of the internet he foresaw its power in education and knowledge he saw an alternative to schooling through a network or service which gave each person the same opportunity to share his/her concern with others motivated by the same concern. His core idea was that education for all means education by all. He sees us providing the learner with new links to the world instead of continuing to funnel all education through the teacher. In this sense, the inverse of school is possible, recommending four types of educational resource:
1. Reference services to Educational Objects
2. Skill exchanges
3. Peer-matching
4. Reference services to Educators-at-large
One could argue that this is starting to happen with the advent of technology in learning, through search, Wikipedia, OER. MOOCs, social media. So I’m sure he would have welcomed Blockchain.
In general, Blockchain is a technology that does promise to disintermediate

Decentralize and democratize, finance and, possibly education.
Conclusion
Blockchain is a piece of technology. It clearly has applications in the world of learning, at the individual, institutional, group, national and international levels; in all sorts of contexts – schools, colleges, Universities, MOOCs, CPD, corporates, apprenticeships and knowledge bases.
Rather than the old hierarchical structures, the technlogy becomes the focus, with trust migrating towards the technology, not the institutions. This really is a disintermediation technology. Traditionally institutions have been the source of trust, Universities, for example, are trusted brands. In finance, banks exist to enact the transaction, so blockchain really can disnitermediate. But in education there needs to be trust beyond the technology. We are looking, I think, at a hybrid model, not a wholescale takeover by blockchain. Reputation will still matter and that comes through professional teachers, research reputation and so on. This is not to say that this cannot be done with blockchain, as one could imagine a sort of web of teachers and learners that simply use blockchain to cut out institutions. This, in my view, is not impossible, but it is unlikely.
And blockchain is not without its problems. There’s data regulation issues and the fact that $500 million disappeared from one of Bitcoin’s exchanges. The US authorities also had to close down a drug dealing exchange, the Silk Road. But is does merit some serious consideration.

Yet the biggest obstacle to its use is cultural. Education is a slow learner and very slow adopter. Despite the obvious advantages, it will be slow to adapt this technology, as most of the funding and culture is centred around the individual institution. Bologna was dead on the day it was signed, as nobody wanted to lose their students and suffer financially. So the source for change will have to come from elsewhere. Then one thing I do know, is that students are doing it for themselves. Check out BEN, the Blockchain Educational Network, a grassroots student-organised movement. This will come from left of field, like Bitcoin.

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